I once knew a guy who had his whole set of viscera scraped out and replaced with canned pears. You’d be more likely to see him smiling at the cinema than Second-Hand Hearts—the first of Hal Ashby’s films to suffer total heart failure.
Forget second-hand, you couldn’t grow a pristine heart in a lab from the tears of angels that could salvage this turkey. That is totally fascinating given who Hal Ashby was and what he’d accomplished—both before and after Second-Hand Hearts.
Cracking the Rib Cage
I am massive fan of Ashby’s—so much so that I’ve studied not only his mind–flogging masterpieces but also his D.O.A. collection: 8 Million Ways to Die, Lookin’ to Get Out, and the truly abysmal The Slugger’s Wife. This one, his first failure, Second-Hand Hearts, was the last one of Hal Ashby’s features I needed to see. It was difficult to get ahold of and for good reason.
Second-Hand Hearts is not a good film. Upon release in 1981 it played briefly in New York and Los Angeles and then got buried by Lorimar. The film has only been available on home media since 2013, and then only as a print-on-demand title.
So I demanded.
After killing it throughout the 1970s, Ashby’s career tanked in the ’80s. People attribute this decline on many things—antiestablishmentarianism, drug abuse, early family trauma—but the fact remains that Hal Ashby made some of the world’s best and worst films. Not only that, but, in the specific case of Second-Hand Hearts, he made them consecutively. Good. Bad. Good.
Coming Home came out in 1978 and won three Academy Awards. Undisputed masterpiece Being There hit theaters next in 1979. But in between those two cinematic gems Hal Ashby shot Second-Hand Hearts. It just didn’t come out—such that it did at all—until 1981.
Those extra two years weren’t enough to salvage the patient. The film is a tone-deaf calamity, not as horrid as The Slugger’s Wife, but so ill-judged as to raise serious questions:
How can the same man who made Harold & Maude and Shampoo helm such a rancid turkey and then go on to make what may be his best film?
Ashby had always been a director with a light touch; he allowed actors room to find their own footing, encouraging exaggerated takes to find focus, and then applying his mastery of editing to draw out quirky, humanist tales from the subtler material in between. Scuttlebutt from the Second-Hand Hearts set reported, however, that stars Robert Blake and Barbara Harris loathed each other.
Not good news for an off-beat romance.
Second-Hand Hearts was written by Charles Eastman, based on his own shorter script filmed for television in 1968—then called The Hamster of Happiness. It aired as part of the NBC Adventures in Television anthology series, so one must presume both that Ashby saw it and that it contained something compelling.
I’d like to say that Second-Hand Hearts likewise contains something compelling, but you’ve been so nice to me and I’m not comfortable lying to your face.
Second-Hand Hearts starts with an early warning sign of impending doom: a crawl of explanatory text. Text like this is usually either totally superfluous (Star Wars) or a desperate attempt to give the viewer a leg up onto what is an otherwise unintelligible slog. What we have here is both:
You are about to meet…..
LOYAL MUKE…a man at the end of his rope, a drifter, a boozer, a bum! Loyal’s been lookin’ for somethin’ for so long, he’s forgot that’s what he was doing. At the moment, Loyal, is the triple threat man at a local, El Paso, car wash.
Then you will meet…..
DINETTE DUSTY…Mother of Jim Bob’s brood. Also, his widow. Necessity left Dinette’s kids – HUMAN, IOTA and SANDRA DEE – over in New Lizard, with Jim Bob’s folks VOYD and NELL DUSTY. And it left Dinette in El Paso, a woman desperate to be with her children.
And this is a story about…..
What happened after Loyal and Dinette, who didn’t know each other, went over to Juarez and got married last Tuesday. Or was it Wednesday? Loyal does remember hittin’ it pretty hard on Tuesday.
See? Not auspicious.
The picture kicks in with a hung over Loyal (Robert Blake) trying to get through a day at the car wash. He doesn’t make it, puking up inside someone’s car exactly as ‘directed by Hal Ashby’ appears on the screen.
Mayhaps we can take that as a sign that Ashby was aware of what a stinker he’d made? Although he’s not credited as editor, and it doesn’t feel like he edited it (the editing sucks), so just as likely it’s someone else’s pre-release review.
Loyal gets canned. He goes to the honky-tonk where he skulks around Dinette (pronounced to rhyme with Betty; Barbara Harris), who is screeching on stage in a big blonde wig. Turns out, they got married. It also turns out that Loyal spent too much time as a kid chewing thermometers or something as he is a bona fide idiot nincompoop. The barely acquainted couple fumble around forever in a scene that establishes that they haven’t had sex yet, that divorce is expensive, and that Dinette will cut Loyal loose if he takes her to get her kids mumble mumble California.
So that’s our premise: mismatched couple on the road. To add spice: it’s difficult to understand what either of them says or why. You’re challenged to deduce why someone as decrepit and moronic as Loyal might enable Dinette to head on over to New Lizard to retrieve her children, but all signs point to ‘he has a car.’
After this opening, it is difficult to say what happens, and I mean that literally. I backed up the DVD a few times trying to understand what characters were saying. Here’s what I deduce: Loyal and Dinette go get the kids, who are indeed named Human, Iota, and Sandra Dee—although the oddness of this is never commented upon or explained. Jim Bob’s mom is in the hospital, but his dad, Voyd (Bert Remsen), is hanging about the grocery/lunch counter he operates. Also there is someone shrewish who most likely is Dinette’s sister-in-law, in from Florida. The kids don’t speak much, particularly Human, who never speaks.
It seems his dad got killed in a nasty car wreck in front of him.
Loyal drinks a lot. A scene at a cemetery indicates that Jim Bob’s mom died but this occurrence does not translate into Loyal and Dinette inheriting the lunch counter as anticipated. Loyal puts a gun to his head and Dinette does her best to talk him into not killing himself so he can drive the whole clan to California. He can’t, he says, but who knows why?
That same person, if he or she exists, probably also knows why Dinette wants to go to California, or why she desperately wants to be with her kids, whom she doesn’t speak to much.
I do know this, however: watching Robert Blake as Loyal is like trying to discuss advanced physics with Squiggy from Laverne & Shirley. He behaves like a schizophrenic who can’t decide which of the Three Stooges presently controls his consciousness. Most often, it’s Curly or Larry, but Moe is in there, too. To accentuate this, he wears a Jughead-style crown cap and talks in a squeaky voice. Barbara Harris’ Dinette is less horrific, but if you woke up married to her you’d feign an aneurism, and then you’d let them bury you before you admitted you were just faking.
Then there’s a scene in which everyone appears to be on Quaaludes, or maybe it was just me. Loyal waltzes alone around the parking lot at night and that’s obviously a powerful moment for him because in the next scene they’re packing for California. Stretching the limits of my associative powers, I’m guessing his lack of a dance partner suggests loneliness and that in turn indicates a willingness to stick with Dinette?
Anyway, they drive. Dinette flaps her gums a lot. They get a flat. Loyal fixes it but the spare is no good! Wah! He runs far off into the desert like Benny Hill. Then there is another scene.
In this other scene, they eat some food or something. Loyal says he needs to check on the car and then there’s a shot of the car driving away. Did he ditch them as Dinette anticipated? Nope. There was just a scene missing or something. Get used to it. Or don’t. It doesn’t seem like anyone much cares what the hell you understand, or feel, or think about this film.
Finally, after about an hour, the film settles into a little bit of drama. Our proto-family runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere at night. Loyal wants to walk into town to get gas but Dinette is terrified he’ll abandon them. He goes anyway, hitching a ride when a truck pulls over, and Dinette literally lies in the road to stop him—but behind the truck? This may be intended to be comic? Was this one of Ashby’s exaggerated takes that he never intended to be included but which the editor stuck in anyway?
That sort of thing happened a lot when Ashby didn’t get to edit his own stuff. A majority of 8 Million Ways to Die is explained by it.
After some rigmarole, Loyal ends up in the home of a Latino family, trying to mooch a ride into town. They offer to call their brother to take him, but Loyal gets spooked and flees. This is one of two inexplicably horrible things in Second-Hand Hearts. The Mexican-Americans aren’t threatening in any way. It’s an older mother on the couch with a passel of young kids. A young adult male is helping to translate and offering to call his brother. This terrifies Loyal so much so that he hides from passing cars as he runs into town—but then he is a moron and his racism isn’t too hard to believe.
It’s only later that the film approves his racism. But first there’s a wacky scene in which Loyal fails to buy gas from a man whose hearing aid doesn’t work. He finally makes it out back to where he left Dinette only to find her and the car gone. Drunk, he goes to the police station where he reports his family hijacked by the Latino family. So the police drive him out there so they can be accused of a crime that doesn’t even make sense. All that’s pretty believable, actually. So is the cops driving Loyal and a bunch of (presumed?) illegals from the family to the edge of town to get lost.
What’s ugly is the fact that then a bunch of young men—brothers in the family?—pile into a beat up truck to chase Loyal down for the affront. Seriously? Is there a reason to justify Loyal’s racist terror of an amicable family of Spanish speakers? I’m going to go with: no.
Meanwhile, Dinette and her kids have been rescued by Maxie (a lonely, middle-aged woman who was abandoned as a child by her parents) and her creepy teenager. Dinette thinks Loyal ditched them, but he just got delayed by his idiocy. Maxie takes them all to church, tries to convince them to stay on with her, and is generally pretty nice. Her son, on the other hand, molests Human in the back of a junked car.
I had to rewind the disc to make sure that that’s what really happened. Yep. That’s what happened. The boy who doesn’t talk is sexually assaulted and that leads to absolutely nothing. Is Ashby commenting on the abuses silently endured by ‘humanity?’ How this nastiness relates to what is supposed to be a romantic comedy—granted one devoid of either romance or comedy—escapes me.
On a basic character level, this is the bottom falling out of the film. Dinette’s whole motivation is love for family, but she hasn’t shown much love or awareness for any of them. All she’s displayed is erratic neediness. Here, her emotionally traumatized son is further assaulted and she doesn’t even notice.
Dinette and Loyal finally get reunited at a rustic rest stop, with the Latino boys still in pursuit. The couple reconciles and then attempts to flee. Driving down the highway, with the truck close behind, we find the film’s climax. Dinette urges Loyal to drive faster. He cannot. She asks him to try, to put his foot down on the gas pedal, but he cannot. Then, miraculously, he can. He tries! They leave the truck and the Latinos in the dust!
That’s it. That’s the happiest moment in Loyal’s life thus far. He achieved something, that thing being applying increased weight to his right foot so as to exceed 60 mph. In the film, this changes everything. Loyal can now imagine not being such a total loser. Dinette rests her head on his shoulder and their affection for each other finds tangibility.
At a roadside zoo, Loyal buys the family a hamster, which gift makes Human smile for the first time in the film. They make it to California and, driving through the mountains, are happy.
I’m sorry. We tried everything we could. This film just couldn’t be saved. Its heart was too damaged. We attempted to transplant a second-hand one, but the body of the work rejected it completely. We even had cinematographer Haskell Wexler shoot the film full of whatever he could scrounge, but it wasn’t enough.
Second-Hand Hearts died, really, before it even made it to post-production. It was too weak to live.
One might surmise that Ashby, a hands-off leader, needed talent and chemistry to foster—talent that was simply lacking here. Maybe he allowed his predilection for chemicals to run him too far off course, or he chose source material that he couldn’t make congeal. He may even have been confronted with antagonistic oversight that he chose not to fight—keeping him from editing his own work.
Whatever happened, it wasn’t a permanent deterioration. Hal Ashby came back from Second-Hand Hearts with Being There. I think that—if it weren’t for his early death—he would have come back from his later, more prolonged slump as well.
What Ashby needed was the support and trust of his team. With that, he worked wonders. Without it, we get Second-Hand Hearts.